Inside the mind of a man

Science tells us that men’s brains are different from women’s – but that doesn’t mean we should not

In the heady, revolutionary days of student sit-ins in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, the message about gender was that all differences were socially constructed. The idea was that, with re-education and so­cial change, these differences would melt away, opening the way for equality between the sexes. "Sociobiologists" were the enemy because they claimed that gender had something to do with genes and evolution. The battle lines between nature and nurture were drawn, with those on the political left firmly allied with nurture and those arguing for nature typecast as being on the extreme right.

One might hope that - 40 years on - such black-and-white thinking would have been replaced by a more nuanced understanding. There has been progress. Today's students of gender do not feel that their former champions (such as Germaine Greer, who wrote in 1991 about "centuries of conditioning of the female") have a monopoly on the truth, and they show a new willingness to learn what scientists have to share. Those scientists who acknowledge the partial role of biology in the creation of gender differences are not banished: it is no longer about nature v nurture.

My own research into gender differences stems from my interest in the neurodevelopmental condition of autism. "Neurodevelopmental" is a fancy word that means every person's brain - from foetal life, through childhood and adolescence - develops differently. In the case of autism, this is partly for genetic reasons, as autism runs in families and has been associated with over 200 different genetic variations. Many more boys than girls develop autism (or the related condition of Asperger's syndrome), so I wanted to understand why the biology of maleness predisposes a child's brain to end up in the condition's extreme state.

What we know is that girls, on average, make more eye contact than boys from at least 12 months of age and that, on average, language develops faster in girls than in boys, measured at 18 and 24 months of age. The question is: "Why?" Given that reduced eye contact and delayed language are two of the signs of classic autism in preschoolers, it seems necessary to consider whether autism is an extreme form of the typical male pattern of development.

New genes

When scientists conduct studies on the nature of the male and the female brain, they put people into two groups, based on their sex. I prefer the word "sex" to the word "gender" because your sex refers to your chromosomal status: whether you have one or two X chromosomes. This starting point, at the moment the egg is fertilised, sets in motion a cascade of consequences for the physical development of males and females because, in place of their second X chromosome, males alone have a Y chromosome. Situated on the Y chromosome is a cri­tical gene called SRY (shorthand for the "sex-determining region Y") that tells the embryo to either grow a pair of testes (and thus become male) or not (and thus remain female).

Once the testes start to function, they pump out the hormone testosterone. There is a surge in the production of this hormone by the foetus from the 12th to the 20th week of pregnancy. The baby's testes are not the only source of testosterone: it is also made from the adrenal glands, which explains why females also have some testosterone but males produce at least twice as much.

Animal experiments have shown that how much testosterone a foetus produces influences the "masculinisation" of the brain and (post-natal) behaviour. This is also true of human beings. We measured hormone levels in the amniotic fluid (the liquid in the womb) during pregnancy and found that the higher the baby's testosterone is pre-natally, the less eye contact the child makes at 12 months of age and the smaller the child's vocabulary is at 18 and 24 months. The puzzle of why, on average, girls talk earlier than boys and spend more time looking at people's faces is solved by this uni­que experiment. As a psychologist, however, I acknowledge that the influence of testosterone is only part of the explanation, as the more a child looks at faces or talks, the more such behaviour will be reinforced by the reactions of others - nature and nurture interacting.
Hormones are not the only biological factors that contribute to observed sex differences in the brain and behaviour, because these are under genetic influence, too, and there are many genes that are "sex-linked". Finding hormonal or genetic effects also says nothing about where in the brain these effects take place.

We know that the male brain is on average 8 per cent bigger than the female brain, even at as early as two weeks of age. But probably more important is that girls' brains tend to develop faster than boys'. We know from studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that girls peak about four years earlier than boys in terms of when they reach their maximum total brain volume and about two years earlier in terms of when they reach their maximum amount of "grey matter" in the brain. This important discovery tells us that, on average, girls mature at very different rates from boys.

Using MRI, you can find sex differences in other regions of the brain, too - a notable one being the amygdala (the "emotion centre"), in both size and activity. In addition, one of the language areas (the planum temporale) is, on average, larger in the female brain. Such findings say nothing about whether the differences come from biology or learning but, from everything we now know, it is a safe bet to say that they come from both.

Law of averages

Throughout this article I have used the phrase "on average", because sex differences cannot be extrapolated to individuals but emerge only when statistical averages of two groups (males and females) are compared. This small caveat is hugely important if stereotyping generalisations are to be avoided, as individuals may be typical or atypical of their sex.

It is equally important not to confuse science with politics. The science of sex differences was once feared, as if even asking the questions was part of a conspiracy to repress women and perpetuate inequalities. Like most conspiracy theories, this one is mythical. The scientists I have met who conduct these experiments are of every political hue.

Speaking for myself, I strongly oppose any form of discrimination or inequality, whether based on sex, ethnicity, social class or disability. Knowing a person's sex tells you nothing about his or her abilities, aptitudes or interests and making any assumption about that person on the basis of their sex would be sexist, scientifically inaccurate and morally wrong. But science helps us to uncover the mysteries of nature, including the nature of sex differences. Handled sensitively, it can teach us a lot about why we turn out the way we do.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. His book "Zero Degrees of Empathy" will be published in April by Allen Lane (£20)

He said, she said

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus - and bad at maths, according to the former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers. When asked at a conference in 2005 why more women were not engaged in high-level research in mathematics, science and engineering, Summers argued that it could be down to "issues of intrinsic aptitude". Such a statement reveals the curious evolution of thought on gender and biology through the 20th century.

When psychologists such as John Money first separated the notion of biological sex from that of gender in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, a consensus quickly emerged that gender was a social construct. Differences in the abilities of men and women were the product of social pressures and expectations, rather than innate, biological differences.

In recent years, however, gender has been pulled back again from the social to the scientific. Biological determinists contend that, far from being a cultural construct, the distinctions between the minds of men and women are innate.

This discourse, however, does not go unchallenged. Writers such as Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender contend that the evidence put forward is flawed. As for Summers, his comments led to a vote of no confidence and he eventually resigned. Perhaps men aren't as clever as they think.

Duncan Robinson

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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